WHEN BETTY WEESNER, the longtime owner of Danville’s town newspaper, The Republican, died in the winter of 2016, we held her funeral at Weaver & Randolph Funeral Home, where I sat in a daze, worrying Rupert Murdoch would buy the paper and turn it into a scurrilous rag. Instead, Jerry Vornholt, a local real estate investor, purchased the newspaper building only to discover The Republican came with it. By that thread of connection, he became the owner of the oldest continuous business in Hendricks County and the boss of its no-nonsense editor, Betty Bartley. I’m using the word “boss” in the technical sense, since Jerry is a smart man and does whatever Betty tells him to do.
The paper is Republican in name only, its title a leftover from the days when newspapers were mouthpieces for the political machines that controlled them. Jerry is a free thinker and wary of ideologies, which strikes me as the proper frame of mind for the owner of a newspaper. In his eternal quest for the middle ground, Jerry thought it would be a helpful civic exercise for two people in our community, one a conservative, the other a progressive, to offer their opinions on a current topic. He hoped to prove that in these boisterous and bitter times, two people of goodwill could discuss a topic without wishing the other dead, which is how I ended up carrying water for the progressives and David Winters, a local accountant and town board member, suited up for the conservatives.
I do my best writing with a clear enemy in mind, so for the past 30 years, I have railed against cruelty, intolerance, the abuse of power, and those who possess these loathsome traits. David has made my job more difficult by being a thoroughly decent man, and while he doesn’t vote as I do, I have enjoyed the meals we’ve shared during this experiment, even as I’ve struggled, without success, to correct his thinking. He remains red to his heart, a product of his evangelical faith. I know that faith well, at least that shade of faith, since I once held it myself. But I let go of it during college, led astray by the good nuns at Marian University.
I earn my living with words, but I am occasionally pressed into service for free, or for one lunch a month, which is what Jerry pays David and I to write our columns. Plus, Jerry owns a Kubota tractor with a front-end loader he lets me borrow whenever I need it. Plus, he let my sister board her horse for several years in his pasture. Plus, he gets nasty letters from cranks and crackpots because of me. I am writing to express my disappointment in your decision to let (choose one or several: a socialist, a godless liberal, a dirty communist) write for your newspaper! Please cancel my subscription! The average small town is a tangled web of economic complications.
Too many readers expect the owners of magazines and newspapers to make abundant space for their view, but never for its counterpart, making the job of publisher nearly impossible, having to placate people who can never be appeased unless and until the world spins their way. A publisher must strike the ever-elusive balance of diverse thought while shrugging off the contempt of partisans. As a writer, I have been scorned by the best of scorners and have gone merrily on my way. As a publisher, I would dread every cancellation, every cutting remark, every letter to the editor cursing my judgment. I feel sorry for any publisher having me as a writer, but not enough to stop writing.
It might be too soon to draw conclusions, but it seems possible that two Americans, holding divergent views, can refrain from implying the other is a Nazi, a traitor, or a snowflake. All the more remarkable, those same two Americans can be seen enjoying one another’s company over lunch at Frank’s Place on the Danville town square. This is the same Frank who moved to America from Italy and joined the American Legion, both Frank and the Legion overlooking the inconvenient fact that during World War II their families fought on opposite sides. It proves once again that while the winds of discord may batter us, they will not best us. The Bettys, Jerrys, and Franks of America will see to that.